On Sunday, June 7, George Burgess, a beloved member of the Atlanta HIV community, died. He was a long-term survivor of HIV, a leader in the recovery community, and an HIV activist. George was my coworker when I worked at AIDS Survival Project in the late 1990s, and a dear friend. I will never forget the kindness he showed me, and his never-ending commitment to helping others.
To honor George and his life, TheBody spoke with his son, Gregory Fitch; daughter, Tiffany Cuthbert; and colleagues Hermeyone Bell and David Salyer.
Gregory Fitch is the eldest son of the late George Burgess. He was born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, and is a proud Army veteran who currently resides in Philadelphia with his family.
Tiffany Cuthbert is one of the daughters of the late George Burgess. She’s the founder of Gold Hearts and Crowns in Atlanta, Georgia, where she focuses on supporting at-risk and transitional youth. She was inspired by her father to work in substance use prevention and has done this type of work her entire career. She’s a wife and mother who has passion for making change in her community.
Hermeyone Bell has been practicing as an adult nurse practitioner in primary care, and as an HIV specialist, for more than 24 years. She was a member and membership chair for the Metro Atlanta HIV Services Council, as well as chair of the African American Outreach Initiative.
David Salyer is a writer and a former HIV peer group facilitator and safer sex educator for AIDS Survival Project in Atlanta.
Terri Wilder: First of all, thanks to everyone for speaking to me today about the amazing life of George Burgess. I first want to say to Gregory and Tiffany that I’m really sorry about your father’s death. I’m sure that this is a very difficult time, and I really appreciate you talking with me.
I’d love to start at the beginning. Greg, can you tell me when and where your dad was born, and what his life was like growing up?
Gregory Fitch: Yes. Thank you. My father was born in 1953, on Sept. 9. He was raised in Jersey City, New Jersey. At the time, it was like a blue-collar town, one mile outside of New York City. He was born to my grandfather, James Burgess, and Lillian Burgess, and very close to his siblings.
No matter who you speak to in Jersey City, they always say the same things: that my dad was well-mannered, perfectly dressed, good young man, mild in his demeanor, but he had this fierceness inside.
In high school, he developed a long relationship with my mother, a strong relationship, Mona Fitch. I was born of that relationship.
Now, my dad’s story is this. It’s a story of triumph. So, in order to be triumphant over something, you have to have had some adversity to triumph over. My father, unfortunately, fell victim to heroin addiction in the early ’70s.
Terri Wilder: Tiffany, can you tell me more about your dad’s life? More about your family? Work that he was involved in? Or anything else that you think is important about his life?
Tiffany Cuthbert: Yes. My dad came down to Georgia because he had a job at, actually, Macy’s. And that relocated him from Jersey to Atlanta, Georgia. He lived down here when he actually found out, around the Olympics—that’s actually when I first met my father, because my dad wasn’t in my life growing up because of his addiction. Probably around 10 years old, I first met my dad. It was when he was in a hospital, and they said that he only had a few months to live.
So, my dad, at that point, even told me that he’s—that’s not going to be his life story; he’s not going to end there. And so, those months turned into well over 20-something years of recovery.
He was determined to be in a relationship with all his children. My dad had been in my little brother's life since he was young. But my older siblings, Greg and Carol, and myself; he came in a little later in life. But he was determined to make sure that we all knew each other and that we were a strong, close-knit family. He did just that.
As far as work, my dad is well known in the community. He’s a well-renowned speaker. Everyone, everyone has always talked great things about my father, as my brother stated. He was always immaculately dressed, very soft-spoken, but was very passionate about his community and the people that he served. His life was of service. That’s all he wanted to do, was serve his community.
My dad—whoever was in his circle, he loved on. He loved hard. That’s one thing about my dad, is that he loved people and he loved to spread love. That’s actually his favorite scripture in the Bible, is 1 Corinthians. So, love is his motto. “One day at a time” is his motto. “Keep the faith” is his motto. As family, we always say, “Grit your teeth and bear it.” So he was very good on his little quotes that he would instill in us to make sure that we were Burgess Strong.
His working community went from recovery, prevention, substance abuse, mental health, recovery, HIV/AIDS—he had a lot of various communities that he worked in. He was always, “I have to go to a meeting.” That was every day of my dad’s life; there was some meeting or someone that he had to speak to when we were growing up.
Terri Wilder: What year was George diagnosed with HIV? And what are your memories of what that was like for him?
Gregory Fitch: OK. Well, in 1996, I was in the military. I was in Alaska. My wife at the time was trying to find my father. Because, like Tiffany said, a lot of us didn’t have those contacts with him. And that’s just one of the symptoms of addiction; he’s doing his thing.
When she found my grandmother, my grandmother—I don’t know if it’s just, chalk it up to divine intervention or intuition, but—she just wanted to find my father. And this was—it was out of the blue. She found my grandmother. My grandmother said that my father was in Georgia, and he was dying. It was 1996.
So, when I took my family from Alaska to Georgia, my father told me he had AIDS. And he told me that he was HIV positive. He had AIDS. And he was trying to get himself clean.
The military gave me capacity for reassignment. I wound up in Fort Gordon, in Georgia. And that’s when me and my father’s relationship started to start. So, at least for me, it’s not until then.
So, when I found out, there was my father, on a ventilator, writing it on a page and telling me that he was HIV positive, that he had AIDS. And then he started to recover, in 1996. So, that’s my earliest knowledge of it.
Tiffany Cuthbert: That was around the same time that all of us really met my dad for the first time; when he was in the hospital. And Grady [Hospital] said that it was actually a local drug deal gone wrong. And they actually jumped him; and so that landed him in the hospital.
I remember him on that day. He only had one tooth at the time. So, when he was in the hospital, that’s when they offered him an HIV/AIDS test. And he denied it at that time. And that was in 1996.
I remember, shortly after, he was actually locked up. And during that time in which he was locked up, they actually did an HIV test, an HIV/AIDS test. I can’t remember the exact timeline, but I know that he found out when he was in jail. And he always said that was the best place for him to find out, because he couldn’t do anything to himself or anyone else.
From there, his journey was to really find out more about it. He always said it was difficult being a straight man in Atlanta, Georgia with HIV/AIDS. Because in Georgia at that time, it was known as, you know, quote-unquote, a gay man’s disease. And a lot of people weren’t educated at that time.
Terri Wilder: So, David, you worked with George at AIDS Survival Project in Atlanta, Georgia. And at one point you were on the board of directors there. And one of the things that I loved about AIDS Survival Project was the mission, which I’ll quote: “We are diverse people living with HIV, united to promote self-empowerment and enhance quality of life for HIV-affected individuals, through advocacy, education, peer support, and treatment activism.”
Unfortunately, AIDS Survival Project closed in 2008. But it had a number of amazing programs for the community. It offered support services, such as HIV testing and peer counseling; of course, the amazing workshop that I worked under, called THRIVE! Weekend; it had a great treatment library, where folks could come and get information; as well as other programs.
And, you know, in my mind, AIDS Survival Project is where George really got his start in HIV activism. So, David, I’m wondering if you can tell me about the ways that you worked with George, and what memories you have of him.
David Salyer: Well, I would say first off, George really did bring the diversity. Because, here was a heterosexual HIV-positive man in recovery. And he was able to relate to parts of the HIV community that I could never reach. Just with his willingness to talk openly about his life and who he was, he brought something to the table that I never could. And he was deeply respected for it.
The other thing I wanted to say is about THRIVE! Weekend, which was a two-day workshop, which is where I got to know George the most. So, this was a pretty intense weekend. And sometimes we would have 80 people sign up for this weekend and then, on Saturday morning, 55 of them would show up. And I was always obsessed with the 25 people who didn’t show up.
And George said to me one time, “The people that were ready to be here got here. Let’s concentrate on the people who got here.”
And he was absolutely right. I needed to be grateful for the people who showed up. And it was such a profoundly simple perspective. And I missed it until he said it out loud.
And the other thing I wanted to say, when you brought up his activism: A lot of people think of activism as being about anger, and yelling, and marching in the streets. And there’s really a spectrum of activism. On one hand of the spectrum, you have the folks with the loud voices, who are absolutely necessary.
But you also need gentle, soft-spoken, non-confrontational, one-on-one activism. And George was a natural fit at that. He was kind. He was resilient. He was a listener. He was just a natural fit.
And I’ll tell you: I thought that he was fearless, because he could talk to anybody. I really never saw him just say, “This is too much. I don’t think I can talk to this person.” He was never like that. He was fearless; he would talk to anybody.
Terri Wilder: And in THRIVE! Weekend, one of the main sessions that he did was with Mona Bennett, from the harm reduction program in Atlanta. He co-presented with her about harm reduction in substance use and recovery; and they were a great, powerful couple, if you will, to offer that. He was very committed to it and never hesitated, when I was running THRIVE! Weekend, to say yes. He was always there.
I remember at one point that George was really known for being everywhere and helping with everything; I finally felt like I had to have a conversation with him and say, “George, George. You’ve got to take care of yourself, too. You don’t have to be everywhere.”
David Salyer: He was always willing to help. Always, yeah. And I loved also that he was so humble. There was not a hint of arrogance about him. I mean, you know, if you get me started, I’ll start bragging about something. That was never true of George. He was just truly one of the most humble people I’ve ever known.
Terri Wilder: So, Hermeyone, George was involved in the African American Outreach Initiative in Atlanta, dating back to when it started in 1999—which was an initiative that had a lot of goals, including reaching the African American community on education. But it was also a way to get people involved in the Ryan White Planning Council process, and some other initiatives. And he was the chair of it in 2011.
Can you tell me about the African American Outreach and your work with George?
Hermeyone Bell: Yes. Thank you, Terri. I wanted to say, before I talk about the African American Outreach Initiative, that I initially met George in the early ’90s, when we worked together at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
I was in nursing school at the time, and so, we were just coworkers at the hospital. He worked in the cafeteria for a short period. And that’s where I initially met him. As others have said, he was just a very warm, loving person to everyone that he met.
And I was new to Atlanta. And it was like, I came through the line. He was the cashier. And I don’t know if I had an expression on my face that, you know, maybe I wasn’t having a good day or something like that; and he just looked at me. He said, “Greetings, my sister. How can I help you today?”
And I was, like, “Oh, my God.” And it just lifted me from whatever I was feeling. That just really uplifted me that day. And I was very thankful for him, for even saying that to me.
And so, later on, when I became a member of the planning council, I met George again at an AAOI meeting, African American Outreach Initiative meeting. And he said the same thing: “Greetings, my sister.”
And so, in 1999, the planning council was given extra money to look at the HIV epidemic in the African American community. And so, the AAOI was formed. Its goal was to encourage African Americans who are HIV positive to access holistic treatment services in order to increase utilization of health care and promote medical adherence by providing information on available services, programs, and other resources.
And so, as the years went on with the AAOI, we’d started having some fundraisers around the community; had a lot of different workshops in some of the AIDS service organizations that were in metropolitan Atlanta. And George is one of the ones who would go around to promote what the AAOI was about, and to encourage people living with HIV who had never been to a conference or who maybe were struggling with their diagnosis, to come out and share their experiences with other people who were living with HIV.
So, it was a two-day forum, in which we had different workshops all day long. And it was free to people living with HIV. And we had a lot of different agencies who presented. And George always had—and what he insisted on having—was an NA meeting at the conference each day.
And so, there was the opportunity for people who were, you know, maybe active in their addiction, or even in their recovery, who had a safe space that was for them to be at the conference. George was the one who made that happen for them.
Terri Wilder: So, Greg, your dad’s celebration of life is coming up soon. I’m just wondering if you can tell me a little bit about what you and the family have planned for that celebration.
Gregory Fitch: Honestly, I don’t know. I’m going to have to [decide] with my siblings. I’ll be down there on Monday. And I’ll be down there from Monday to Friday to celebrate at my family’s place. And we’ll come up with something at that point. We’ll still be dealing with things. You know what I’m saying? So, I’m not sure what they’re going to do with that.
And plus, we have some business between us, as far as—like, business. You know what I’m saying? So, we’ll figure something out. But I would like something like that to happen. That would be great for us.
Hermeyone Bell: And then you said that you want everyone to wear red for the celebration.
Tiffany Cuthbert: Yes. The significance of red is—and, again, if you know my father, we have red ribbons everywhere: throughout his house, on his dreamcatchers, on his little candleholders. And his favorite color was actually red. In his closet he had his red shirts, red buffalo prints, red scarves, and a hat with a red feather. So, we just really wanted to honor the red that our dad loved. Again, that was his nod to HIV/AIDS.
He was an HIV/AIDS survivor. Again, that wasn’t what sent my father out. My father actually passed away from heart failure, after surgery for his kidney. So, he, again, was very prideful about HIV/AIDS.
But he had an acronym for HIV/AIDS. And so we really wanted to, like I said, honor that and wear red for our dad.
Terri Wilder: I always loved your dad’s outgoing message on his cell phone. You know, if I called him, it always was disappointing if I didn’t get him on the phone, but I always—it made me smile, that his message always said, “God is good. Recovery is good. Remember, in all that you’re getting, get understanding. Keep safe.”
Your dad was such a great man. And I, like many others, will miss him for probably the rest of our lives. So, Greg and Tiffany, I’d love for you just to end by sharing: How would you like for your dad to be remembered?
Gregory Fitch: Well, certainly, I sort of remember the tirelessness of him, so the many different vehicles of recovery, advocacy for, like, full diagnosis people; and all the people he was in fellowship with.
On a more personal level, each individual—I want them to—whose life he impacted as a friend; he was a hero. And I know that’s what he is to me. So, that’s where I always been with that. My father has always been my hero, even in the dark times, and the light times. He’s always been my hero.
And if he touched somebody else’s life like that, that’s a whole other meaning.
Tiffany Cuthbert: Yeah. That question was right on time, because I actually found the acronym. So, his AIDS acronym was Always In Divine Service; Always In Divine Space. He liked being of service. So I want people to remember him as such. He was; he was loved by so many.
And I just want people to continue to share the good news that he had. Share recovery is possible. Share HIV/AIDS isn’t a death sentence. I want them to remember the kind words that he shared. I really want him to be remembered for the love that he gave. Especially in today’s age, I feel like there’s not enough love given out to each other. But when you were around my dad, you knew that he was loving. And you felt love, regardless of what you had going on.
I just want them to know that he’s always with each of us. It feels so true—like, I just want my daddy with me all the time. But I know that he touched so many lives; and I want people to continue to live the life that he empowered you to live. Live right and live of service … and live in love.